Big Finish’s ‘Doctor Who’ audio stories: November 2016 reviews round-up

November’s stories from the Doctor Who audio wizards at Big Finish show the truly demonstrate the range of the programme.

While the Sixth Doctor and Mrs Constance Clarke, combat a beautiful new design of Dalek, Hartnell era companions Peter Purves and Maureen O’Brien bring to life a comic tinged historical in the Italian Renaissance.

Meanwhile, the Short Trip release brings back popular Eighth Doctor companion Charlie Pollard to seek out a Victorian explorer, and in their second box set release, Tim Treloar and Katy Manning return to the heady days of the early 1970’s with a pair of new tales for the Third Doctor and Jo Grant.

In the wider Whoniverse, Torchwood anniversary celebrations continued with Cardiff under siege in Torchwood: Outbreak, while we forget entirely what the new UNIT team were up to.

 

Main Range #218: ‘Order of the Daleks’

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Mike Tucker’s ‘Order of the Daleks’ is a carefully crafted tale set on the world of Strellin – listed as not being advanced enough for contact yet suddenly sending a sub-space signal.

Of course the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and companion Constance Clarke (Miranda Raison) turn up, as do an investigating team from Galactic Census – Pendle (John Savident) and his assistant Asta (Olivia Hallinan). Here they encounter an order of monks led by Tanapal (Nick Briggs who also voices the Daleks), and as the title reveals there are Daleks.

The cover of this release is also revealing; it shows a splendid, even artistically beautiful, Dalek encased in stained glass (known as Dalek Stainley to its friends) and Mike Tucker has found a new angle on the most familiar of foes in this story.

If the first disc spends a lot of time setting up the fine details of the story for the second disc, we also have John Savident channelling some (but not all) of his time as Fred Elliott on Coronation Street and an equally strong performance from Oliva Hallinan (Laura Timmins in Lark Rise to Candleford). Even if the resolution is inevitable (spoiler – the Daleks don’t conquer the universe, this time) the storytelling and performances keep the listening involved through to the end.

This latest trilogy may be headed for a resolution to some (or even all) of the Constance Clarke arc, but in ‘Order of the Daleks’ Mike Tucker focusses on adventure rather than filling in too much of Constance’s backstory. Fans will have to wait to learn more. In the mean time we can only hope we hear more from Savident and Hallinan in the future.

 

Early Adventures 3.03: ‘The Ravelli Conspiracy’

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Taking their cues from the Hartnell era’s comic trips into the past, Robert Kahn and Tom Salinsky bring the TARDIS to 16th century Florence for an encounter with the infamous Niccolò Machiavelli.

Thanks to a miscalculation by the Doctor, attempting to deliver Steven and Vicki to a futuristic sounding Olympic Games, the time travellers find themselves at Machiavelli’s home, where he endures house arrest having fallen out of favour with the ruling Medici family.

With Steven and Vicki promptly captured and the TARDIS confiscated, the Doctor finds himself striking a wary alliance with the duplicitous Machiavelli, and impersonating a cloth merchant to gain access to the Medici residence and rescue his friends.

‘The Ravelli Conspiracy’ is a pure historical, through a world away from the harrowing drama of March’s ‘The Peterloo Massacre’, and the lighter tone suits the whirl of plots and conspiracies as the main players try to out manoeuvre each other.

There’s broader comedy too, with Florence’s paranoid ruler, Guillano de Medici (Jamie Ballard) quarrelling with his visiting brother, the powerful and charismatic Pope Leo X, and seeing villainy all around him – as well as dealing with the ineffectiveness of his bumbling guards.

As ever, Peter Purves shines in the dual roles of the First Doctor and Steven, having plenty to do as the former in a battle of wits with Mark Frost’s Machiavell, while Steven is swept into the drama when he is freed by another conspirator, Carla (Olivia Poulet) who lurks in the palace kitchens.

For her part, Maureen O’Brien enjoys some lovely scenes opposite Robert Hands’ entertaining Pope Leo who amusingly takes a fancy to the TARDIS as a prized work of art, and also to Vicki as his consort.

Throwing a line back to some of our favourite Hartnells, and clearly enjoyed by the cast as the extras demonstrate, this is the sort of tale we hope to hear more of.

 

Short Trips 6.12: ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’

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Ian Atkins wrote this month’s Short Trips story, a welcome return for India Fisher as she returns to the character of Charlotte Pollard as she travels with the eighth Doctor.

As a motif it takes the idea you should never meet your heroes, except in this case, even armed with a time machine, Charley and the Doctor find it harder and harder to find her hero.

Hunting for an itinerant Victorian explorer they find themselves trying to unravel a sinister scheme to chance Earth’s history and rewrite its future.

What started as a chance to fulfil a childhood dream turns into a quest, and at its heart the future itself is at stake. All big ideas but at the middle are questions of identity, morality and the inevitable twist (or two) in the tale.

India Fisher makes an excellent narrator, and avoids trying to do an impression of Paul McGann, and instead focusses on moving the story forward. Lisa Bowerman’s direction is as seamless as ever, and there is plenty of soundscape to quickly draw the listener into this charming tale.

Inevitably the story has to end happily ever after, but it’s fair to say Charley grows through the progress of events and anyone looking for an ethical dimension might ponder whether the ends justify the means. Anyone else will be treated to a great tale, well told and produced.

 

The Third Doctor Adventures: Volume 2

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Having skilfully, if gingerly returned to the Pertwee era last year with partially narrated tales, this second box set offers two more stories and a couple of different flavours from those well-loved years; adventure on a futuristic Earth colony and creepy happenings in the English countryside.

First, in ‘The Transcendence of Ephros’, a short hop in the TARDIS lands Jo and the Doctor on a planet set to explode, and among the followers of a cult who believe they will transcend to another plane of existence when it does.

Ephros is controlled by Gallactus Power Inc. and represented by boorish and sarcastic commander Karswell (Bernard Holley), and the cultists are led by Mother Finsey, in a terrific performance from Richenda Carey. While you might expect the two to be at odds, the organisation is set to make a killing from the impending natural disaster and have no issue with believers who wish to be on the planet when it explodes.

Granting the Doctor some enjoyable heroics, plus the chance to flaunt his influence with Madame President of the Earth Empire (with a pleasing nod to ‘Frontier in Space’), writer Guy Adams also gives Jo a thorny ethical dilemma, as she tries to respect the choice of the cultists but just has to rage against what she sees as the futility of their beliefs.

Back on Earth for David Llewellyn’s ‘The Hidden Realm’, and the pair set off in Bessie at the behest of Jo’s cousin Steph Andrews (Clare Buckfield), whose husband Peter has gone missing.

With sinister magpies and a string of odd disappearances which go back over a period of sixty years, the village and now new town of Bramfield provide the setting for an enjoyably off-kilter tale.

With a pair of London coppers also assigned to the case, a seasoned inspector and a younger sergeant, matters are soon complicated with talk of money wired from Buenos Aries and Jo finds herself paired up with the younger detective (Alex Lanipekun).

We enjoyed the familial link for Jo, and would have liked to have spent a little more time exploring that relationship, as we could not help but wonder if Steph’s father was the Uncle that helped Jo get into UNIT. We also loved the name check for Liz Shaw, who apparently established an archive of the odd and unexplained during her brief time with UNIT.

Both of these tales offer pleasing twists on the familiar stories of the early 1970s, and we felt removing the narration actually seemed to take the pressure off Tim Treloar’s Third Doctor. While not seeking to be a perfect vocal match, Treloar provides a pleasing echo of Jon Pertwee, capturing the spirit of that idiosyncratic performance, and as we were quickly swept up in the adventures we often forgot any differences.

Sadly, the Pertwee era is the one with the fewest remaining cast members, but Katy Manning still gives her all as the lovable and loyal Miss Grant, and she flies the flag for her time on the show brilliantly which is why, in addition to a third box-set with Tim Treloar, we were thrilled at the recent announcement of UNIT: Assembled, which promises to reunite Jo with Mike Yates and John Benton.

 

What was your favourite Doctor Who release from Big Finish this month? Let us know below…

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